The Pheasants Revolt – Brian Viner – Book Review

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This was one of the books that I recently bought at the annual Hastings Lions Book Sale and the first one that I’ve decided to read. It’s a biographical memoir and follows on where his first book Tales of the Country, which I still have to read, left off. As mentioned in my post about the book sale, I’d already started the book more or less as soon as I got home and it only took three sessions of reading to get through it. His writing flows very easily and you find you’re unable to stop yourself speeding through the stories. Although each chapter is a stand alone story of his family and their life in the British countryside, they are in chronological order so it still, in a way, reads like it’s one story.

It’s not a new book, the ones at the book sale seldom are, and was published in 2007. But from my own experience, although cities change rather quickly, life in the countryside is much slower paced so the stories in this book will ring as true today as when first published.

Although he’s not quite in Bill Bryson’s league as far as one liners go, Viner can still throw in one or two lines to make the reader chuckle along the way, for example – “Applying a razor blade to one’s scrotum is not a job anyone should do in a hurry.” – this from a story relating to his preparation for a vasectomy operation. It’s certainly an attention grabber. Actually, on reflection, he and Bryson do have a lot in common as far as their writing styles are concerned. Both write in the same way that a favourite long-lived uncle would bumble his way through stories of his dim and distant past. Getting lost on the way and taking several side paths before getting back on track to finish the story….and on occasion just getting totally lost.

He’s moved his wife and three children from the city to an old manor house in the Hereford countryside to “live the country life”, but he’s totally inept at country living. His idea of success is being able to walk across a cow paddock without standing in a cow pat, however he does learn how to turn a sheep up the right way…..please don’t ask – read the book.

His predominantly self-depreciating stories cover everything from – being a Beater during Grouse shooting season… the first day known as the ‘Glorious Twelfth’, and to grouse as ‘Bollocks, Is It Already That Time of Year Again?’ – coming home to find that the builders who have come to repair his house have spent a whole day putting up scaffolding against the wrong wall – the disaster faced when finding his two dogs had been out savaging sheep – discussing the delights and the downfalls of country dining – the right and wrong way, from experience, to raise chickens – his experiences of being a very minor celebrity – his discovery that one of his neighbours is, or I should say was, a notorious Madame (Madame Whiplash no less) and more.

It’s a very entertaining read and I will certainly make an effort to track down both his earlier book Tales of The Country, and a later one called Cream Teas, Traffic Jams and Sunburn, about the British on holiday. If they are anything like The Pheasants’ Revolt they will be witty and entertaining reads.

Of poems, walls, family and a poet called Frost…

I guess it’s not simply by chance that I enjoy reading the poems of Robert Frost. Not only do we have the same family name (Frost) but also share a love of the outdoors, of nature. Many of Frost’s poems are set in the natural world – in woods and fields.

Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874, but after the death of his father – when Robert was just 11 years old – lived much of his life out east, first in Massachusetts and then, after attending Harvard university (where he dropped out after 2 years due to health issues), in New Hampshire. Here, surrounded by nature, his writing really took off although it was not well received by publishers and rejection letters became the common reply to his submissions.

In 1912 at the age of 38 Frost moved his family to England and within a few months had found a publisher for his works. All of a sudden his poems were popular and sought after by publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. During his time in England he met Ezra Pound and Edward Thomas who both gave positive reviews of his work, boosting Frost’s popularity. One of Frost’s most popular poems, The Road not Taken, was written as a kind of joke about Edward Thomas’s lack of ability to make choices and then second guessing himself, although at the time many readers (Thomas included) failed to get the joke and took the poem at face value.

His 2 years of living in England were extremely good for his writing, but in 1914 at the outbreak of The Great War (world war one) he was forced to return to the USA, settling again in New Hampshire. Here he met up with publisher Henry Holt who would be his publisher for the rest of Frost’s life. Many of the publications that had turned down his poems before he left for England were now begging to publish. He sent them the same poems that they had earlier rejected and this time they all found their way into print. I guess this is a message for all writers, not just poets, to never give up, never lose faith in your writing.

Getting back to the whole point of this post….what started me off on this post about Frost’s poetry was….I’d been reading his poem Mending Wall…..(excerpt below)

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there…….

It goes on about how he and his neighbour go about rebuilding the wall, stone by stone and how he needs to know what, or who, is being either kept in, or kept out, by the wall, where as his neighbour simply likes it as a boundary between his property and theirs. “Good fences make good neighbours” is the neighbour’s mantra.

All of this reminded me of my grandfather George Arthur Frost, who was a builder by trade – mainly of houses – but who also used to build dry stone walls around the farmers fields in our village. We lived in what was the west riding of Yorkshire but is now classified as South Yorkshire, where there are very few wooden or wire fences and most are dry stone walls. These walls are put together by careful selection of rocks and stones, cleared initially from the fields, and stacking them in a way that requires no cement or mortar of any kind. All the pieces are self supporting and lock together. It’s an art form really. And a way of life, a skill, that is slowly disappearing.

Usually because of the length of the walls being built and the need for speed, most walls around fields are built with rocks and stones found close by, which are used in their natural form….not chiseled into shape. BUT walls built as garden walls (as in the second picture above) are taken more care with. Some of the stone would be reclaimed from previously built houses, extra stones are shaped more or less rectangular by the builder as he goes along, taking his time, building a wall that will last for centuries.

I felt it only fitting to follow in another Frost’s footsteps and pen my own poem to dry stone walls and the men who build them. So, inspired by Robert Frost, this is for my grandfather George Frost, from me Malcolm Frost.

George built walls straight and true
From stones found here and there
A firm foundation slowly grew
He stacked layer upon layer.
He worked hard through rain and sun
Through stillness and wind blow
Stepping back to see what he’d begun
And how far he had to go.
The rough stone made his fingers bleed
But George didn’t seem to mind
Sweat on his brow began to bead
As he got the wall aligned.
His wall will last a hundred years
And then some way beyond
This poem’s for George and all his peers
And stone walls of which I’m fond.